Utah "ag-gag" law interferes with First Amendment rights, Reporters Committee argues

Press Release | December 11, 2013
Utah "ag-gag" law interferes with First Amendment rights, Reporters Committee argues

Protection of the nation’s food sources and the First Amendment are endangered by a Utah law banning audio and image recording at meat-processing plants, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press argued in a brief filed in federal court in Salt Lake City, Utah.

The “ag-gag” statute, which makes it a criminal offense to record activities at these plants, “weakens food safety guarantees at the same time it stifles free speech,” the Reporters Committee argued in a friend-of-the-court brief joined by 16 news organizations.

“Journalists and organizations that conduct investigations into meat-processing facilities have long been credited with advancing the safety of the meat the public consumes,” the brief argued. “Federal inspection has drastically improved the safety of the meat in the past century, but problems within the inspection system leave a gap in food safety that journalists and animal rights organizations have filled. While no journalist has the right to trespass on private property, the overbreadth of the Utah statute poses a substantial risk of criminalizing lawful – and constitutionally protected – newsgathering activity.”

“There is a long history of outstanding journalism that has exposed horrific and dangerous conditions at meat and dairy processing plants, frequently reported with the assistance of whistleblowers inside the plants who can document the abuses,” said Reporters Committee Executive Director Bruce D. Brown. “The motivation here is simply to ensure the nation’s food supply is safe, and much of this reporting has led to significant legislative reform. Stifling that reporting serves no public interest and, in fact, works against the state’s interest in protecting the health of its citizens.”

The brief also notes that “Utah already has laws that deal with trespass and fraud” and activities that interfere with agricultural operations. The ag-gag statue, however, “makes certain acts more illegal and criminalizes other arguably legitimate information-gathering activities – even though they cause no harm – simply because they involve recording images and sounds on the property. The intention is obviously to stop activists who wish to record animal abuse or other improprieties in the food production industry. As a result, those who seek to inform the public about abuses are more likely to be prosecuted simply because they sought to document the actions they are revealing.”

Joining the Reporters Committee on the brief are: the Association of American Publishers Inc.; California Newspaper Publishers Association; Deseret News; First Amendment Coalition; the Investigative Reporting Workshop; KSL Broadcast Group; KSTU Fox 13; National Press Photographers Association; National Public Radio, Inc.; The Newspaper Guild – CWA; North Jersey Media Group Inc.; the Salt Lake Tribune; The Spectrum; Stephens Media LLC; Student Press Law Center; and Utah Headliners Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.

About the Reporters Committee

Founded in 1970, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press offers free legal support to thousands of working journalists and media lawyers each year. It is a leader in the fight against persistent efforts by government officials to impede the release of public information, whether by withholding documents or threatening reporters with jail. In addition to its 24/7 Legal Defense Hotline, the Reporters Committee conducts cutting-edge legal research, publishes handbooks and guides on media law issues, files frequent friend-of-the-court legal briefs and offers challenging fellowships and internships for young lawyers and journalists. For more information, go to www.rcfp.org, or follow us on Twitter @rcfp.

Related Reporters Committee resources:

· NM&L: An overview of "ag-gag" laws